Washington, D.C., July 28, 2008—While access to postsecondary education has increased in the United States despite the rising cost of degree attainment, America now lags behind other countries when it comes to assuring the public of what its degrees mean. The United States’ current “accountability” campaigns offer numbers, not quality indicators. In contrast, 46 European countries that have been working since 1999 on changing the way they conduct higher education focus first on defining each degree in terms of learning outcomes. Our 3,300 colleges, community colleges, and universities have much to learn from their efforts in order to ensure a more secure position for our students in a global economy. This is the principal message of a policy brief released today by the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP).
The report, Learning Accountability from Bologna: a Higher Education Policy Primer, examines the reconstruction of those 46 European higher education systems—known as the “Bologna Process”—in terms of addressing challenges that lie at the core of current debates in the United States about documenting student learning. Written by higher education researcher Clifford Adelman, the study explores the core features of change in Europe that have been created jointly by higher education administrators, faculty, students, and national ministries of education.
“The U.S. higher education system, the world’s most complex, is imperfectly struggling with accountability issues,” said Adelman, “yet the largest restructuring of higher education the world has ever seen has addressed accountability in ways we have not even imagined.” “Bologna is a work in progress, but pieces of it have already been imitated and adapted in Latin America, Africa, and Australia, and it is well on its way to becoming the dominant global paradigm of higher education within the next two decades.”
The Bologna Process at-a-Glance
The Bologna Process is being carried out across 23 major languages from Iceland to Turkey, Portugal to Russia, and affects 4,000 institutions and 16 million students, a size comparable to the U.S. system of higher education. The core features of Bologna’s “harmonization” include:
- Every degree is publicly defined so that everyone knows what it means in terms of the demonstration of knowledge; the application of knowledge; fluency in the use of information; breadth, depth, and effectiveness of communication; and degree of autonomy gained for subsequent learning. These definitions are performance criteria, and to earn a degree, a student must “demonstrate” defined levels of mastery along each of these lines of learning.
- Everyone can recite the difference in performance criteria for an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, and a master’s degree, and the public language of these criteria clearly ratchets up the performance bar at each level.
- Credits are based on a common standard of student workload, not faculty contact hours, and (in a growing list of countries) each course is assigned a level of challenge so that the combination of workload and level guarantees transfer of credits.
- Every student who earns a degree receives, as a supplement to the diploma (and in addition to a transcript), an official documented summary of the setting, nature, purpose, and requirements of the degree and major program—and a shorthand descriptive warrantee of what the student did to earn the degree.
Reconstructive Suggestions for Change in the United States
Reflecting on Bologna Process changes, the policy brief provides recommendations on how to address accountability challenges facing U.S. postsecondary education. If implemented, these initiatives would provide public reference points for student learning and performance. These suggestions all follow a student-centered story line, and include:
- Developing detailed and public degree qualification frameworks for state higher education systems and in students’ major fields;
- Revising the terms of the American credit system by adding a rating of academic challenge for each course’s credits; and
- Developing a distinctive U.S. version of a diploma supplement that summarizes individual student achievements in ways that a transcript does not do.
Learning Accountability from Bologna, is the second publication in a five-part IHEP series under its Measuring Global Performance Initiative. The first study, a longer and more detailed essay, The Bologna Club: What U.S. Higher Education Can Learn from a Decade of European Reconstruction, was released in May and covers access and accountability issues, and was also written by Adelman. Both publications, along with a Web-based information resource center that includes more than 500 documents in 22 Bologna-inspired topical categories, are available on IHEP's Web site.
Launched in 2007, the Measuring Global Performance Initiative aims to create a new understanding of the rapidly changing global context for learning and credentialing in higher education, and the potential impact of these changes in the United States. The initiative covers not only the Bologna Process and its implications, but also the challenge of constructing more enlightening international comparative indicators of participation, pathways, and attainment in higher education than are currently available.
The initiative is supported by Lumina Foundation for Education, an Indianapolis-based private foundation striving to help people achieve their potential by expanding access to and success in education beyond high school.